Backing Putin: Russia’s middle class is no longer a catalyst for democratic change


Cameron Ross, University of Dundee

A wave of protests rocked Moscow and scores of other cities across Russia between 2011 and 2013. The demonstrators called for free and fair elections and some even demanded an end to the Putin regime. Many Russian commentators argued these mass protests were spearheaded by members of the urban middle class, and the world’s media concurred.

History has shown that where there is expansion of the middle class, democracy develops alongside. As the middle class accumulates wealth and property, it develops a vested interest in stability and the rule of law, promoting the development of a set of democratic checks and balances on the government.

Often seen as a bastion of democracy, Russia’s middle class is popularly regarded as a major source of opposition to the Putin regime. But does it give more support to democratic values, such as support for free and fair elections, a free press and a pluralistic political system, than other classes?

Divisions have weakened the solidarity of the Russian middle class and questioned its role as a catalyst for democratic change. That crucial dividing line is between those who depend on the state for their livelihood and those who work in the non-state sectors of the economy. As commentator Andrei Kolesnikov puts it:

The … end of the post-Soviet transition created a specific kind of middle class: one that grew out of oil and gas deposits, one that demanded both bread and circuses … But there is another middle class, too, born out of something very different … the giant army of state officials and public sector workers. Then there are the security services, investigators, prosecutors, judges: the backbone of the state. The class of people working not just directly for the state but also for state corporations and banks, and private structures whose existence depends entirely on connections with the state and officialdom.

My research reveals that most of the middle class support Putin, and given the choice, will opt for stability and the political status quo, rather than risk the uncertainties brought about by democratic reforms.

Who are Russia’s middle class?

So what factors influence who belongs to the middle class? Economists focus on income and property. But defining the middle class this way fails to explain how such a diverse group of individuals could develop a shared class identity or consciousness. Income-based approaches really define middle “layers” rather than classes, and fail to capture low-income citizens who, according to other criteria such as education and occupation, would qualify for middle-class status.

Sociologists, in contrast, stress divisions between employers and employees, as well as those between “manual” and “mental” labour, and add other criteria, such as education and occupation, to those of income.

In a survey of 4,000 citizens carried out in collaboration with the Russian Institute of Sociology, we found that just 26% of the respondents could be defined as middle class, based on individuals who met criteria in three areas: income – an average monthly income not lower than the median for the country as a whole; occupation – non-manual “white collar” employees; and education – those with higher education.

Recognising the middle class’s role as a catalyst for economic development, Putin has called for an increase in its size “to encompass 60% of the population”. But his attempts to modernise the country to boost economic growth may end up sowing the seeds of its own destruction. For, as has been widely demonstrated, a society’s public values shift and become more hospitable to democracy as they become wealthier, more industrialised, more urban and better educated.

A state-dependent middle class

But it is important to stress that the middle classes are made up of a diverse group of citizens, each with a variety of political and moral attitudes, and its social composition will vary in different countries. An important factor here is the degree to which members of the middle class are dependent on the state for their livelihood, which is particularly relevant to the Russian middle class.

For example, in Russia, 76.6% of leading managers in the state sector were members of the middle class in 2011 compared to just 33% in 2007. For members of the military and security forces, the percentage of middle-class members grew from 25% in 2007 to 44% in 2011. In 2018, 48% of the Russian middle class were employed in the state sector.

We would expect there to be differences in the interests and values between those who are state-dependent for work and those who work in the private sector, and our study confirms this is the case. But the differences are not very large, and they have narrowed since the outbreak of the civil war in Ukraine
and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Support for the regime increased substantially in the wake of these developments, as the vast majority of Russian citizens supported Putin’s foreign policy towards Ukraine. Members of both sectors currently prioritise stability and economic security over liberal values, and both express high levels of trust in the Putin regime.

According to our survey, 63% of of state sector workers and 65% of private sector workers supported the idea that “Russia needs to revive national traditions and moral and religious values”, whereas just 37% and 35% respectively, supported the alternative that “Russia should move forward towards a modern way of life, such as in Europe”.

Similarly, 68% of state sector workers and 69% of private sector workers supported “strengthening the state’s power over the economy and politics”, whereas just 32% and 31% respectively, chose the option calling for “the release of citizens from excessive state control”.

Two thirds (66%) of state sector workers and 63% of private sector workers agreed that “it is necessary to introduce moral censorship over the media”, while 34% and 37% respectively, agreed that “the mass media and art should be free from censorship”. Finally, 73% of state sector workers and 64% of private sector workers expressed trust in the president.

In 2019, after almost two decades of Putin, it would appear untrue to say that Russia’s middle class universally supports liberal and democratic values. As has been the case in countries like China, those doing comfortably well seem quite happy to prop up an authoritarian regime if their interests are protected by the state.The Conversation

Cameron Ross, Professor in Politics, University of Dundee

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vladimir Putin’s lying game


Keith Brown, Arizona State University

At the now infamous Helsinki press conference held after the summit meeting between Presidents Trump and Putin, Trump indicated he was impressed with Putin’s denial of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

“I have great confidence in my intelligence people,” Trump said, “but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial.”

That answer must have pleased Vladimir Putin.

Strength and power have been key to Putin’s political brand ever since August 1999, when he was appointed as Russia’s prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin.

Putin led the country to victory in the second Chechen War, and as the virtual incumbent following Yeltsin’s resignation, he rode that wave of patriotism to victory in the presidential election of March 2000, with 53 percent of the national vote.

Putin, with Moscow Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, in 1994.
AP/Dmitry Lovetsky

Eighteen years later, following a brief hiatus from 2008 to 2012 during which he served as prime minister, Putin remains president, winning 77 percent of the vote in May 2018.

Putin makes strongman politics look effortless, and President Trump could not be clearer in his expressions of admiration and trust for his more experienced counterpart. From over two decades studying communist and post-communist politics, I believe there is value in looking past Putin’s confident self-projection and examining the machinery behind it.

As a former KGB officer and head of FSB, Russia’s national security agency, President Putin has professional roots in deception, disinformation and violence beyond the imagination and experience of most Americans outside the intelligence community. His 18-year record in public life provides high-profile cases where he has been equally “strong and powerful” in undermining truth – and targeting those who expose him.

Truth, lies and consequences

Here is a short catalog of Putin’s most glaring lies, as well as his actions against those who challenged him.

1. In 1999, bombs exploded in a number of apartment buildings in Russia, killing 293 civilians.

The bombings were attributed to Chechen terrorism, driving up patriotic support for Russia’s military in invading Chechnya. When one bomb was detected and defused in the city of Ryazan before it went off, new Prime Minister Putin praised the people of Ryazan for their vigilance.

His subsequent strong leadership during the Chechen War was key to his election as president in March 2000.

Yet forensics, eyewitness accounts and whistleblower revelations all indicated that Russia’s security service, the FSB, planted the Ryazan bomb.

The commission established to investigate the FSB’s role in all the bombings discontinued its work in 2003 when two key members died violent deaths. Deputy Sergei Yushenkov was gunned down, and investigative journalist Yuri Shchekochikhin died in a hospital from an “unknown allergen” that shut down all his vital organs. FSB whistleblower Alexander Litvinenko, who directly accused Vladimir Putin of involvement in the apartment bombings, was poisoned in London in 2006.

A British inquiry found that the Russian secret service killing of Putin critic Alexander Litvinenko was ‘probably approved … by President Putin.’
AP/Cathal McNaughton

2. In 2004, Chechen terrorists took hostage hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers in a school in Beslan in North Ossetia.

Russian authorities refused to negotiate and instead deployed military forces to storm the school. More than 330 people died and another 550 were wounded. Among the dead were 184 children.

Putin was adamant that the use of force was justified and necessary in the face of terrorism, and used Beslan to increase centralized Kremlin power. He rejected a European Court of Human Rights judgment that Russian authorities used excessive force against their own citizens.

Journalist, human rights activist and Putin critic Ana Politkovskaya was poisoned when traveling to Beslan to cover the siege. She survived, and continued to research and publish on Putin’s assault on democracy until she was shot and killed outside her Moscow apartment in 2006.

3. In 2005, the American-born British CEO of Moscow-based investment fund Hermitage Capital, Bill Browder, was denied re-entry to Russia, and declared a threat to national security.

Browder’s tax attorney Sergei Magnitsky then uncovered a US$230 million tax fraud scheme against Hermitage Capital. Magnitsky’s work revealed high-level government collusion in the criminal looting of public assets.

After taking the allegations public, Magnitsky was arrested in Moscow on fabricated charges and detained for 11 months prior to trial. He was repeatedly abused in jail, including denial of treatment for chronic health conditions. Eventually he was beaten to death.

The Russian state’s punishment did not stop then. Magnitsky was posthumously tried and convicted for tax evasion.

Browder has subsequently pursued justice for Magnitsky, advocating for the worldwide adoption of the Magnitsky Act. The act was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2012 to sanction individual Russians involved in human rights abuses.

Putin held a December 2012 press conference
following the Magnitsky act’s passage and the Russian Duma’s subsequent retaliatory ban on American adoptions of Russian orphans. Putin said, “Magnitksy … was not tortured — he died of a heart attack.”

4. On July 17, 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard.

Putin denied the U.N. finding that the Russian military had shot down a civilian plane, killing all 298 people on board.
AP/Vadim Ghirda

In May 2018, a U.N.-backed Joint Investigation Team concluded that the Russian 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade, based in Kursk, had fired a missile and brought down the plane.

In direct contradiction of the forensic evidence, Putin flatly denied any Russian involvement in shooting down MH17.

That denial comports with Putin’s long-time denial that Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014 – one of 10 false Russian claims about Ukraine identified and debunked by the U.S. State Department. That report is no longer available on the U.S. government website.

5. In February 2015, Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov was assassinated in Moscow. Just before his death, Nemtsov had taped a television interview in which he discussed his investigations into Russian war crimes in Ukraine, and called President Putin “our expert in lying. He is a pathological liar.”

After Nemtsov’s death, President Putin assured Nemtsov’s mother, “We will do everything to ensure that the perpetrators of this vile and cynical crime and those who stand behind them are properly punished.”

Nemtsov’s relatives and allies insist on Putin’s complicity and have called the investigation and prosecution of five killers a cover-up. Video evidence and the journalistic investigation into the details of Nemtsov’s murder, likewise, see the highly organized hit involving multiple gunmen and vehicles as the work of a professional intelligence organization like the FSB.

Connecting the dots

The risks for individual Russians challenging Putin’s lies are clear. One journalist has listed 34 suspicious deaths since 2014.

Those killed have nonetheless left an evidentiary trail for a host of contemporary writers like Masha Gessen, David Satter and Peter Pomerantsev. Those writers, and others, detail how Putin has built enormous wealth and power by deploying violence and deception to control the political narrative and disable or eliminate meaningful opposition.

President Trump respects that strength and at times, seems even to envy it. How, then, does he interpret this array of evidence of serial lying and complicity in multiple critics’ violent deaths?

He might conclude that all of these independently produced, empirically-grounded investigations are somehow part of a grand deep-state conspiracy to defame or discredit a man of integrity who can and should be taken at his word.

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That conclusion, though, would dishonor the ordinary and extraordinary Russians who have stood up to the deception and violence of President Putin’s regime, risking or losing their lives as a result. It’s the responsibility of the American president to acknowledge this. By virtue of the office he holds, President Trump has the ability to stop being played by Putin, and speak truth to power.

Keith Brown, Professor of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

In the outrage over the Trump-Putin meeting, important questions were overlooked



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The outrage over Trump’s comments at the joint press conference meant an opportunity for meaningful debate about policy was lost.
AAP/EPA/Anatoly Maltsev

Filip Slaveski, Deakin University

In a now famous Fox News interview with Donald Trump in February 2017, Bill O’Reilly asked the new US president if he respected his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The following discussion ensued:

Trump: Well, I respect a lot of people but that doesn’t mean I’m going to get along with him.

O’Reilly: But he’s a killer though, Putin’s a killer.

Trump: There are a lot of killers, we’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?

Not a few viewers in countries on the wrong end of US foreign policy may have had to stop and catch their breath at Trump’s final sentence. A common thread of so many of their experiences of US foreign policy is not only the bombing from above. Many share a deep repugnance toward what they see as a well-manicured facade of American moral superiority, which helps to frame, water down or justify the violence and humiliations to which they are regularly subjected.




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Just for that breathless moment, it seemed this sentence of moral relativism tore a hole in this façade and threatened the moral protection it provides to members of the American establishment.

It is these elected politicians from both major parties, military, state department and security officials, spies, advisers and lobbyists who have reacted most vociferously to Trump’s moral relativism in international affairs. This was perhaps most evident in his accommodating attitude to Putin in general, and especially in Helsinki last month.

In the blanket and largely uncritical Western news coverage of the establishment’s expressions of outrage, commentaries and interviews in response to the July meeting, Trump was depicted as a traitor to the US, Putin’s puppet and now even a greater threat to US national and, indeed, international security.

They may or may not be correct on some or all counts. But it is worth examining exactly what or whom Trump was betraying in Helsinki. So what did Trump do? He accepted uncritically (then later awkwardly back-tracked) Putin’s denial of election meddling and adopted much of his critique of US foreign policy over the last couple of decades.

As far as we know, Trump did not even interrogate Putin over his deadly meddling in Ukraine. He may not be particularly interested. In the lead-up to Helsinki, Trump trash-talked old US allies (including NATO).

Taken together, this conduct exacerbated the establishment fear that Trump was threatening to dismantle well-established Western political structures geared toward containing Russian influence carried over from the Cold War. These structures have been essential to cementing a broader post-Cold War US unipolarity. This has given the US political establishment a free hand to pursue its foreign policies without much restraint but with terrible consequences for those affected in, for example, the Middle East.

I doubt Trump is pursuing a grand strategy to unravel these structures, especially when his rhetoric displays a penchant, even a fetish, for the US unipolarity these strategies help foster.

Furthermore, his rhetoric has not really translated into significant foreign policy changes so far. Much of it is meaningless. But there is whole body of scholarship and commentary that would encourage Trump in any dismantling efforts, as it argues that the carrying over of Cold War structures of Soviet (Russian) containment such as NATO after 1991 have stood in the way of the development of more peaceable relations between Russia and the West. Indeed, structures like NATO fuel Russian anxieties and aggression, which NATO was founded to combat.

More traditional scholarship disputes these “revisionist” ideas, citing Russia’s aggression as evidence of the indispensability of containment to international security.

Scholars on both sides can find evidence to support their arguments in Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Ukraine. But these revisionist ideas, or even the debate with more traditional ones, were hardly mentioned in the blanket media outrage over Helsinki. Critically, then, an examination of the object of Trump’s supposed “treachery” was also lacking when it was most needed.




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The focus on outrage may just be the reality of covering an outrageous president in politically sensitive times. In any case, an issue remains for us in Australia to re-examine our own approach to Russia.

This could mean advocating a “new” revisionist or “new” traditional approach toward Russia in response to its conduct, especially in Ukraine. But it would also mean at least trying to untangle the latter from the broader implications of supporting American unipolarity and, hopefully, avoiding its consequences.

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This larger project beyond Russia is worth pursuing, if not for the sake of those who suffer its consequences around the globe, then at least for our own. Mass population dislocations, food shortages, terrorism and economic disruption threaten more than ever to reverberate all the way from those far-flung borders straight to our doorstep.

Filip Slaveski, Research Fellow, Alfred Deakin Research Institute, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Trump has made Europe more fearful of a possible Russian attack


Jean S. Renouf, Southern Cross University

US President Donald Trump’s eyebrow-raising visit to Europe has confirmed Europeans’ worst fears: if another “Crimea-like” take-over by Russia occurs somewhere on the continent, they will likely be on their own.

Trump had made it abundantly clear that European leaders can no longer rely on the US for its protection. He was not only harshly criticised by his own party for being too conciliatory with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit, he also lashed out at US allies once more, going so far as to call the European Union a “foe”.

The US may have more than 60,000 troops stationed in Europe, but a recent report stating the Pentagon is assessing the impact of a possible reduction of troop numbers, coupled with Trump’s unpredictability, has made America’s traditional allies nervous.

Indeed, by initiating trade wars and continuously attacking his closest allies, Trump has weakened the entire West.

Another war in Europe remains possible

Despite his reassurances last week that the US still values NATO, Trump’s divisive visit to Europe may embolden Putin in his assessment that occupying more European land may not be met with much military resistance.

Poland is so concerned, it has recently offered to pay the US up to US$2bn to permanently deploy an armoured division on its soil.




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The on-going conflict in Ukraine, coupled with Putin’s increased emphasis in recent years on Russia’s “right” and “obligation” to “protect” ethnic Russians and Russian speakers beyond its borders, contribute further to the unease between Moscow in the West. This is particularly being felt in the Baltic states, two of which (Estonia and Latvia) have sizeable Russian minorities.

It certainly doesn’t help when Russia conducts military drills or dispatches warplanes on the borders with the Baltics, giving a real sense that military escalation in this part of Europe is entirely plausible.

Tensions are building in Eastern Europe

The focus of any possible Russian military incursion could be a thin stretch of land between Poland and Lithuania known as the Suwalki Gap (named after the nearby Polish town of Suwałki), which would allow Russia to reinforce its only access to the Baltic Sea through its Kaliningrad exclave and cut the Baltics off from the rest of Europe.

The Suwalki Gap also links Kaliningrad with Belarus, a staunch Russian ally. Moscow regularly organises joint strategic military exercises with Minsk, the most recent being the Zapad (meaning “West” in Russian) war games last September.

Kaliningrad is strategically important, as well, as the site of recently deployed nuclear-capable short-range missiles and an upgraded nuclear weapons storage site.




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Reflecting their concerns about a possible invasion, NATO members held military exercises last June that focused for the first time on defending this 104km strip of land from a possible Russian attack. Then, last month, NATO held the Trojan Footprint 18 joint military exercise in Poland and the Baltics, which was one of its biggest-ever war games in the region.

These military build-ups on NATO’s eastern flank are reminiscent of the Cold War and feed both Russia’s “deep-seated sense of vulnerability vis-à-vis the West” and Europe’s own feelings of insecurity.

Going it alone

But should Russia decide to invade the Suwalki Gap, would Europe go to war over it?

It may not be able to. European military options remain limited as NATO does not have the military means to go to war against Russia without the US. Acutely aware of this, European leaders launched a new regional defence fund last year to develop the continent’s military capabilities outside of NATO.

While a direct Russian invasion of a NATO member would be the worst-case scenario, it’s more likely that Putin would seek to further destabilise the bloc’s eastern flank through a hybrid war involving cyber-attacks, divisive propaganda campaigns and the use of armed proxies like the “little green men” that appeared during the Ukraine conflict.

Even here, though, it’s clear that Europe cannot provide a unified front to counter potential Russian actions. Some countries like Hungary and Italy seek a closer relationship with Russia, while others like the UK are already embroiled in diplomatic conflicts with it.




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France and Germany have already announced plans to increase defence spending not because of commitments made to Trump during the latest NATO summit, but out of real concerns that another confrontation with Russia is becoming a real threat.

The ConversationTrump has weakened the Western alliance at a time when Europe is not ready to step up and ensure its own security. He may have united Europeans around shared fears and their collective response, but he’s also made them more vulnerable.

Jean S. Renouf, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations, Southern Cross University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why Trump’s liberal demolition job and authoritarian outreach is about China


File 20180704 73309 17gjyg8.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
US President Donald Trump has been reaching out to totalitarian leaders such as North Korea’s Kim Jong-un while snubbing traditional allies.
AAP, CC BY-SA

Reuben Steff, University of Waikato

It is obvious that US President Donald Trump is comfortable engaging with dictators and even US adversaries.

In contrast, he displays indifference – if not hostility – towards the liberal rules-based order that has served US interests since World War II. Issues like human rights, trade, climate change, and even America’s democratic allies have all been criticised or undermined by the president during his time in office.




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The general explanation for the president’s behaviour is that it stems from his personality. He seems to see something he respects in “strongmen”, whether it is Duterte, Putin, Xi, Erdogan or Kim.

But is the explanation that simple or is there something else at work? Is there a strategy that, President Trump and his allies believe, serves America’s geopolitical interests? If there is, it’s about China.

America’s ideological problem

Consider that there are a number of states throughout the Asia-Pacific and across Eurasia that may soon be “up for grabs” as US-China tensions escalate and states hedge their position. Clearly, Washington wants as many states as possible to maintain their strategic distance from Beijing and lean towards the US. This is a task that will become more difficult as China’s power continues to rise and America finds it harder to reassure its allies that it can maintain its dominance in the region.

A number of these states have authoritarian governance systems, forms of illiberal democracy or may be trending in this direction. They do not share America’s governing liberal ideology. This ideological difference could complicate America’s efforts to keep these states out of China’s orbit, which claims to have no interest in the domestic affairs of other states.




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US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War cannot have reassured authoritarian and illiberal states that Washington’s ideological values play only a minor role in it. US foreign policy, at times, has looked like that of a revolutionary power intent on transforming the international system in its own image. After all, the Bush administration appeared to believe that the only way for the world to be safe was for liberalism and democracy to triumph everywhere, which could usher in a global democratic peace. This is an assumption with some empirical support.

Furthermore, the immense power of the US may have made it difficult for non-liberal states to feel assured that even if they complied with US demands to give up their weapons of mass destruction (which they perceive as a critical deterrent to US intervention), they might still face further requests and threats. As Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafi found out in 2011, even a regime change can be a consequence.

Addressing a disadvantage

So how does all this tie back to America’s competition with China for the allegiance of states across the world? What could encourage authoritarian and illiberal states, in particular, to lean towards China in the years to come and accelerate the emergence of a bipolar US-China system?

Firstly, America’s power provides it with immense discretion to act and the capacity to undermine and enact regime change against illiberal states. Since 2003, we’ve seen this in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Secondly, it is US ideology, and their fears that US power will be used for ideological ends – that is, to militarily intervene against illiberal states to try replace their regimes with liberal ones. The first point can generate concern all on its own but it’s further magnified by the second point.

To illiberal states, US liberalism has compelled Washington in the past to go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” – and they are the ideological “monsters”.

Therefore, a case can be made that if the US credibly communicates that it is not motivated by liberal impulses, it will reduce these ideational concerns. It will increase (by how much is debateable) incentives for states to lean towards the US. Thus, American liberalism, rather than being seen as a source of strength, could leave the US disadvantaged as China’s power rises.

Trump’s challenge to the liberal order

Trump’s recent behaviour towards the G7 is consistent with this. It further communicates the point to authoritarian and illiberal states that this administration does not care about a state’s ideological stripes. This approach even gives President Trump more room to manoeuvre to attempt his own “Nixon to China” initiatives towards Moscow (if he can overcome domestic opposition) and Pyongyang.

Rapprochement with North Korea could reunify the Korean peninsula in a way that benefits the US at China’s expense (as well as eliminating a nuclear threat). With respect to Russia, it could stop Moscow’s drift towards China, and eliminate the prospects of Eurasia coming under the effective domination of a China-Russia led de facto alliance. Removing liberal ideology from the picture removes one roadblock towards these geopolitical initiatives.

The Trump administration appears to believe there is little material costs to adopting this approach. America’s traditional liberal allies lack the will to pay for their own defence and thus cannot constitute a true challenge to US global power. They can issue rhetoric and voice their opposition to US foreign policy but President Trump, rightly or wrongly, does not view these as meaningful forms of influence.

The ConversationUltimately, to the US president, liberalism is an ideology with no clear foreign policy benefit. To him it is one that could, at worst, act to drive states towards China, accelerating the emergence of a bipolar world order. This is one consistent element of the president’s strategy. The faster we reconcile ourselves to this, the quicker we will be able to grapple with the implications his foreign policy has for the existent liberal international order.

Reuben Steff, Lecturer in International Relations and Security Studies, University of Waikato

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Russia not so much a (re)rising superpower as a skilled strategic spoiler



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Much of the interest in Russia centres around its experienced and skilled political leader in Vladimir Putin, speaking here with Donald Trump.
Reuters

Alexey D Muraviev, Curtin University

Russia keeps posing a massive intelligence puzzle to the West: it is never as weak as we may want it to be, nor is it as strong as we fear it may be.

So, how can we classify Russia as an international power? It is not the Soviet Union reincarnated, so it is not a reborn counterpoint to US global supremacy. Nor does it intend to be. But it remains a major strategic spoiler of the US’ ambitions to retain its rules-based global order.

Moscow is trying to strengthen its relationship with like-minded major powers. China is one of Russia’s comrades-in-arms, although not a formal ally. China and Russia are not forming any sort of anti-Western/anti-US alliance; both great powers have their own national agendas.

Over the past ten years, Russia and China have developed very close military ties, but their economic relationship remains uneven and quite low on the common strategic agenda. They are de facto engaged in soft competition across Central Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

But their intention to change the status quo in support of their ambitions aligns with their security and strategic agendas, at least for now. Just like China, Russia seeks to maximise its strategic autonomy by aggressively fending off any perceived challenges to its national interests or sovereignty.

The time cannot be better. US President Donald Trump keeps puzzling allies by reversing major political decisions of previous administrations, while prioritising an inward-looking approach to running his country. And he is no match for Vladimir Putin in terms of experience, charisma, domestic popularity and global influence.




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Try a simple experiment: search any publication about Russia published by the Australian media and try to find an article on anything Russia-related that does not have a reference to Putin. We see in Putin a manifestation of Russia’s ambitions; its political, military, economic and even sport successes and failures; defence of traditional values and criticisms of the Western way of life.

Putin wants for Russia a “place under the sun”: that is, dominance over the immediate neighbourhood combined with Russia’s recognised right to have interests in other parts of the world. The big question is: does modern Russia have what it takes to be a global superpower? The reality is there is no definitive answer to that.

On the one hand, Russia possesses key elements of a superpower: it is self-sufficient when it comes to natural resources and it is an energy superpower; it is a space power with a developed sovereign capability; it has a world-class scientific capability; it is the second-biggest military superpower in the world behind the US. Finally, it has global ambitions and a global agenda.

On the other hand, like China, Russia does not have a civilisational agenda – a competitive political model that could be an alternative to Western liberalism based on a free-market economy. After all, the Cold War was a clash of competitive socioeconomic systems supported by geopolitical and military-strategic competition. There is none of that today.

Second, Russia does not have the economic might of China and its intertwined economic interaction with the US. The Russian economy has suffered a great deal from the tight sanctions regime implemented after the Ukraine crisis, and is only beginning now to show signs of recovery.

That is not to say Russia has lost the economic means to support itself and its global ambitions. Over the past two years, it has achieved a major breakthrough in exporting grain and other agricultural produce, making it one of the top-three foreign currency earners. In 2017 alone, Russia earned some US$20.5 billion by exporting agricultural produce.

Russia’s energy exports also remain high. In 2017, Russian energy giant Gazprom generated total revenue of US$103.6 billion. This year’s revenue is expected to reach US$108 billion. In Europe alone, Gazprom controls 34.7% of its energy market, thus making it an important element of Russia’s regional geoeconomics.




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The Russian defence sector plays its traditional role of both earning much-needed cash and furthering Russia’s geopolitical agenda. In 2017, Russian arms exports were worth US$17 billion, while the total portfolio of foreign orders of Russian armaments and military equipment is about US$45 billion, effectively retaining the number-two position in global arms sales.

Still, Russia has no means of global economic expansionism. It is desperately seeking new economic opportunities and partnerships with other countries that do not want all the power focused on the US. This gives China a strategic lead because of its diversified extensive economic partnerships with the US, Europe and Asia.

Yet it would be premature to crown China as the sole superpower rival to the US. Unlike Russia, China clearly lacks political and diplomatic experience – the ability to play complex games on a global chessboard.

As an incoming superpower with global ambitions but limited experience in great power politics, China studies carefully the Soviet and Russian experiences and leaves Russia to fight all the major fights at international forums. North Korea and the South China Sea are among the few exceptions where the Chinese show strategic activism.

Apart from its extensive diplomatic experience, China also needs Russia’s strategic nuclear and conventional military might.

Under Putin, the Russian military managed to close the capability gap with the most advanced Western militaries and transformed itself from a large, under-equipped and understaffed army into an effective, highly motivated and battle-hardened force. Putin has given the once-cash-strapped military machine a massive financial boost – and, more importantly, full political support.

Between 2013 and 2017, Russia landed in the world’s top-three nations on defence expenditure, just behind the US and China. In Europe, Russia has remained the single largest defence spender and buyer of major combat systems.

From 2012 until early 2017, the Russian military received 30,000 new and upgraded armaments and items of heavy military equipment. The Syria campaign and Russia’s ability to exercise strategic reach has once again made the military factor supported by active diplomacy one of the key determinants of successful realising its national strategic agenda.

In short, Russia is a major global power in outlook and reach, locked in a values-based confrontation with the West. But it still lacks all elements of a developed superpower.

The ConversationBut what it does most effectively is play the role of a strategic spoiler in times when the world is gradually accepting a new international configuration with a suite of established and emerging great powers that would dominate a future world order.

Alexey D Muraviev, Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies, Curtin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The US, Russia and China: a twisted tale of personal ego, profound mistrust and foolish nationalism



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In Russia and China, Donald Trump now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing or feel the need to comply with America’s interests and priorities.
Reuters/Carlos Barria

Joseph Camilleri, La Trobe University

Alarm bells are ringing a mere three months into Donald Trump’s presidency. The two global flashpoints, Syria and North Korea, are worrying enough. The Conversation

More troubling still are America’s relations with Russia and China. These are now mired in angst, uncertainty and mutual suspicion. They underlie the failure to create a viable system of crisis prevention and crisis management.

Global power shift

Trump’s first 100 days as president have dramatically demonstrated this failure. For all the rhetoric about “making America great again”, Trump is rapidly discovering that the US has limited capacity to impose its will on the rest of world.

The trend is visible everywhere – in international trade and finance, diplomacy, and numerous conflicts around the world.

In Russia and China, the US now faces two centres of power that are no longer willing to comply with America’s interests and priorities.

Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been busy reasserting its influence after years of humiliation following the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Starting from a low base, China has sustained over the last three decades the most remarkable rate of economic growth in modern history. Now it is seeking to exert the political influence commensurate with its new economic status.

America’s relative political decline goes back to its military defeat in Vietnam. Temporarily obscured by the end of the Cold War, it became fully apparent during the Bush and Obama years. But Trump is the first president to have run on a platform openly stating that the US is in decline and promising to reverse the trend.

Militarism not isolationism

In his inauguration speech, studded by more references to “America” than any inauguration speech in US history, Trump vowed:

We will make America strong again. We will make America proud again. We will make America safe again. And we will make America great again.

The nationalist card – the one unifying plank of his otherwise chaotic discourse before and since his election – is meant to strike a chord with the many disenchanted Americans hankering for a “golden age” that has long since passed. Trump now faces the immense challenge of delivering on this pledge despite intractable problems at home and abroad.

On the international stage, he has chosen to rely on showing off America’s unmatched military might. This position is supported by some of the most powerful voices in the US military and political establishment.

Soon after taking office, Trump gave the military expanded authority in the conduct of operations against Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. In support of the Saudi bombing campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen, the US carried out 70 airstrikes in March alone. This is more than twice the number for all of 2016.

In the first two weeks of April, the Trump administration:

Yet the utility of military power is diminishing. As one centre of power declines and another rises, new faultlines and tensions emerge, and with them new uncertainties. This helps explain why the US finds it so difficult to set a clear policy direction for relations with Russia and China.

The Russia conundrum

In the case of Russia, Trump’s task has been greatly complicated by the findings of the US intelligence community that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 US election.

Hoping to deflect attention from his campaign’s links with Russia, Trump has allowed relations with Russia to continue on their downward slide. Perhaps it was never his intention to reset the US-Russia relationship.

In any case, he is under considerable pressure from his most senior security advisers to act tough with Russia. Almost certainly, he failed to appreciate that his actions and statements on Syria would provoke Putin’s fury.

The end result is clear. In Trump’s words, US relations with Russia have reached “an all-time low”. Not surprisingly, he has now reversed his previous position on NATO, and announced the alliance is “no longer obsolete”.

Russia, for its part, remains unbending in its support of the Assad government in Syria. It has mercilessly denounced the illegality of the US missile attack, and used its veto power to block a UN Security Council resolution condemning Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons.

And now Russia has forced the US to accept a significant watering down of the UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s latest missile launch.

Russia has been busy reasserting its global influence under the leadership of Vladimir Putin (left).
Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

China’s rise

During his election campaign, Trump repeatedly lambasted China for its currency manipulation and threatened to apply tough restrictions on Chinese exports. Before and immediately after his election he flaunted America’s commitment to Taiwan’s security, and challenged China’s military build-up in the South China Sea.

Yet the tone has since changed markedly. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US became an occasion to discuss differences on trade and agree to a 100-day plan for reducing the current US trade deficit with China.

At least in public, Xi stuck to his script about the virtues of bilateral co-operation. Trump presented the talks as forming the basis for “an outstanding relationship”.

The North Korea crisis has exposed the limits of US power. Neither increased US economic sanctions nor the threat of military action are likely to force the North Korean regime into submission.

The US needs China’s help to have any chance of reining in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. China’s response has been to increase pressure on North Korea while issuing a stern warning to both parties.

And so, the relationship remains at best unpredictable. As much as China and the US need each other, the hawks in the Trump administration – and there are many – will not easily abandon their plans to contain China, challenge its claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea, and maintain the US military’s pre-eminence in the region.

However, none of this will halt China’s rise.

What does the future hold?

The months ahead are less than promising. The use and threat of force will do nothing to resolve any of the longstanding conflicts in the Middle East or east Asia.

The projection of military muscle and modernisation of nuclear arsenals are far more likely to produce greater local and regional instability, and heighten the risk of miscalculation from any of the three major centres of power.

Trump and Putin lead countries that hold some 14,000 nuclear weapons, or close to 95% of global stockpiles. These arsenals cast a shadow over US-Russian security, which seems likely to darken with the advent of new technologies and rising levels of mistrust and suspicion.

Pursuing “America First” or “Russia First” policies in conditions of such mutual vulnerability is an exercise in futility.

A more profitable course for these three centres of power is to recognise each other’s legitimate interests, expand the opportunities for economic and diplomatic co-operation, and develop a co-ordinated approach in the management of actual and potential flashpoints.

To bear fruit, such efforts need to have solid foundations – in particular decisive steps to eliminate nuclear weapons, enhance the effectiveness of international law, and strengthen the UN’s capacity for conflict management and peace-building.


Professor Camilleri will explore these issues in depth at a keynote lecture to be delivered at St Michael’s on Collins, Melbourne, on May 9 and 16.

Joseph Camilleri, Emeritus Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia: Tony Abbott Promises to Shirtfront Vladimir Putin


One does have to wonder just how serious Tony Abbott’s comments can be taken, especially this one about ‘shirtfronting’ Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Is this a core promise or just spruiking for the camera – will there be some video record of the shirtfronting, because without it I would find it difficult to believe it has happened.